Jun 242012
 

Title: Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power
Author: Sanger, David

It is a common misconception that presidents that are consistently “pragmatic” do not simultaneously have a more general doctrine guiding their policy decisions. However, as is made amply clear in David Sanger’s new book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, pragmatism is more a matter of knowing when and how much to follow your principles, and when the needs of the moment must prevail.

In Confront and Conceal, Sanger follows up on his last book, The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power by  outlining the path that President Obama has followed in confronting the many  national security policy questions that a US president must face.

Typically characterized as following a pragmatict approach, the Obama administration actually does follow a very clear set of guidelines in all of its foreign policy. Indeed, the Obama Doctrine could be described as “don’t appear to act unilaterally.” That is, it generally attempts to use multilateral, diplomatic processes to achieve its foreign policy goals. When a threat arrises that appears to require the use of force, it therefore prefers to employ others in the international community, and aid them in the pursuit. This can be seen in its “leading from behind” in Libya and its generally hands-off approach in the rest of the Arab Spring. However, when it perceives a direct threat to US interests, it is not opposed to acting unilaterally and forcefully, as it has done in Pakistan, and generally prefers to keep the action as quiet as possible.

The most interesting example of this preference for unilateral action to remain secret is brought to light by Sanger’s chapter on the US operation known as Olympic Games, in which the US and Israel created and deployed a worm into the computers controlling Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. As noted in the New York Times, “This is an account that long will be consulted by anyone trying to understand not just Iran but warfare in the 21st century. It alone is worth the price of the book.”

Of course, the book covers an array of other national security issues, ranging from the surge in Iraq, to Pakistan, to North Korea. It is a worthy book by any measure, but for those interested in the understanding the strategic approach of the president to national security issues, Confront and Conceal should be on the top of the must-read list.

Jun 102012
 

Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen recently wrote:

When Barack Obama hosts George W. Bush at the White House today for the unveiling of Bush’s presidential portrait, the 44th president will have to find something nice to say about the 43rd. Perhaps Obama could point out that the two men’s counterterrorism policies are virtually indistinguishable — except in the liberal reaction to them.

However, when reading through the details of his argument, it becomes clear that Thiessen’s facts are a bit fishy (as are his conceptions of the laws of war). He focuses most of his argument on the drone-warfare policies of the two Presidencies, but fails to note that while the drones were initially developed under Bush’s watch, very few of the drone strikes were carried out by him. He says:

Most conservatives support Obama’s drone strategy. And apparently so do most liberals. A Post poll earlier this year found that 77 percent of self-described liberals support drone strikes, and 55 percent approve even if the targets are American citizens. This may be the greatest bipartisan achievement of Obama’s presidency: He has secured broad liberal support for the key elements of the Bush doctrine. That is an accomplishment that was unthinkable when Bush was in office — and one I suspect Obama will leave out of his remarks at the White House today.

However, it is amply clear that drones played little if any part in the Bush Doctrine. Simply stated, this doctrine involved preemptive strikes to topple possible foes with little follow-through once the regime had fallen. Drones were used in each of the wars that Bush began under this doctrine, but were in no way integral to it. They are, however, indispensable to the Obama administration’s conduct of a remote war with al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan. Thus, Obama’s heavy reliance on drone operations reflects a significant departure from Bush-era policies.

Indeed, the two mens’ policies on Afghanistan and Iraq could not have been further apart: Bush ignored Afghanistan in favor of a war in Iraq, then under-resourced both; Obama has faithfully followed a surge and withdraw policy in both. Additionally, as Thiessen himself hints at, the two administrations approaches to interrogation and legal process are significantly at odds. Obama’s rejection of the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and his attempt (foiled by Republicans in Congress) to close Guantanamo and bring terrorist back under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice, need only be pointed out to persuade the reader that the two administrations differ remarkably in terms of their counterterrorism policies.

Jun 102012
 

In recent months and years, it seems that Congress has been taking an increasingly active role in setting US national security policy. Legislators are no longer satisfied with simple pronouncements on their foreign policy preferences, even in the form of House or Senate resolutions that indicate broad support for their position. Instead, Congress has been affirmatively exerting its power through all of the tools available to it, from requiring reports from the Pentagon and the Secretary of Defense to imposing (vice authorizing) sanctions.

This turn of events would be important even if it did not directly affect the national security of the United States. After all, it reflects a shifting balance of power between the branches of the federal government which seems to be largely unnoticed in the general press. Under the status quo ante, the Congress’s role has been to endow the President with certain policy tools and to review his use of those tools. If it is uncomfortable with his policy, it generally just complains bitterly. On extreme occasions, it will remove or place restrictions on some of those policy tools.

The current Congress’s actions go much further. The best example is the sanctions regime it has placed on Iran. Congress did not merely authorize President Obama to impose sanctions on Iran, its leaders, or those others who may interfere with the sanctions regime–instead it required him to do so. This, of course, limits his flexibility in coming to a negotiated settlement (see my previous post), which is exactly what is intended.

The 112th Congress is not one which is particularly interested in negotiated solutions in any case, but with regard to Iran, many legislators see negotiation as a dangerous distraction from the path to war. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) described the Obama policy as a “foolish embrace of yet another round of negotiations [that] will only embolden the regime.” While language has been added to the forthcoming Iran sanctions bill which makes clear that the act would not authorize the use of military force, this provision was itself a contested issue that had to be watered down in the Senate.

But perhaps the most worrying aspect of this sequence of events is not that Congress is taking the lead, nor that it is hell-bent on using military force, but instead that it is intent on doing so without taking into account the effects on the political and economic situation. Indeed, in the absence of a ground invasion, there is little hope that the nuclear program could be destroyed by military force since it is both hardened and dispersed. Additionally, any attack that did not completely wipe out the program would likely cause Iranians to “rally to the flag”–in this case the nuclear flag–a completely counterproductive outcome. Lastly, not only would any direct attack on Iran would throw the oil markets in particular into wild chaos, but invading Iran at this point, so shortly after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (but not North Korea), would force much of the world’s population to conclude that we are at war with Islam. And you can be sure that the Islamic world will not take that lying down. Until these issues are addressed, precipitous use of military force would be most unwise. Thankfully a few Republicans, such as Chuck Hagel, are making their concerns about these issues known and are calling for cooler heads to prevail.

The general failure to take such considerations into account displays a lack of strategic thinking. In setting policy, especially in cases dealing with nuclear proliferation among our enemies and the decision to resort to military action, where the national security is so directly impacted, decision-makers (whoever they are) must take into account not only the odds of success or failure of the policy objective at hand but also the secondary and tertiary effects, as well as the relative likelihood of each possible outcome. Not doing so risks creating more problems than are solved–and that appears to be the road we are now being steered down.

Jun 042012
 

Over the course of the last week or so, several events in North Korea have occurred which shed light on the nature of the regime and thus its role in the strategic environment.
The typical view of North Korea is as a “communist dictatorship,” or less charitably, as an ideologically driven state with a child (or, formerly, a wingnut) at the helm. Alternatively, the DPRK is seen as a totalitarian monolith. However, there is more to the state than this. As is more fully discussed in David C. Kang’s article in International Security, there are actually several competing elements at the sub-national level, each vying for control of the state’s foreign policy, namely the party, the military, and the cabinet.

The recent constitutional amendment declaring the DPRK a “nuclear armed state” or “nuclear power,” depending on the translation, bring this into particularly stark relief. In a dictatorship, constitutional amendments are little more than publicity stunts, since the dictator can by definition do as he pleases. This means that negotiations with dictatorships, regardless of any applicable constitutional provisions are one-level games. This is of course one of the reasons that they are popular as allies in difficult regions: they are more manageable.

Democratic and bureaucratic states, on the other hand, have to play the same game on two levels: the international and the national. That is, in addition to pleasing the negotiating partner, the negotiator must not offend the constituents at home. Such two-level games cause obvious difficulties, but also benefits. After all, the negotiator can fall back on the inability to garner public support at home (true or not) as a reason to reject a proposal he dislikes, increasing his leverage in the negotiations.

An example of this could be seen in President Obama’s recent remarks to Russian President Medvedev that he will have “more flexibility” regarding the anti-ballistic missile shield after his reelection. This was not intended to be heard at home, but to convey a firmness in present negotiations that was out of his control. This increases Obama’s negotiating power: Medvedev cannot expect a result that Obama cannot produce. However, because it was caught by a “hot mic,” the gambit actually did have second-level effects, negatively affecting public support and weakening his negotiating power. This illustrates the simultaneous constraint and empowerment of the democratic negotiator’s two-level game.

Similarly, in an ideological state with competing factions, such constitutional provisions can become significant roadblocks to negotiation. Just as a US negotiator would face certain reprimand for attempting to negotiate away 2nd Amendment rights, a North Korean negotiator would now be in severe trouble if he committed the constitutional crime of agreeing to give up the nukes. The DPRK has thus created significant leverage in nuclear negotiations by constraining their negotiators.

Interestingly, the sub-national actors are not the only ones that North Korea must please (or avoid offending too badly). North Korea is heavily dependent on China for aid and international support. China is therefor another constituent whose views must be taken into consideration in negotiations with the West. According to Nightwatch, a party official recently told the South Korean media that “North Korea is prepared to attempt a second space launch but is concerned about Chinese and Russian reaction as well as the prospect of another failure.” While the DPRK sometimes asserts its independence by defying Chinas wishes, it will be hesitant to launch another missile or test another nuclear device for fear of going too far and risking its status as client state.

This adds a second dimension to the two-level game (now a three-level game?) which may be exploited by the West. If the US can convince China that it is in China’s interest to not only limit proliferation on the Korean peninsula, but to reverse the progress the DPRK has already made, it will effectively be changing the conditions within the DPRK’s constituency. This will increase the pressure on the North dramatically, forcing a change of policy.

 

Jun 012012
 

Daniel W. Drezner recently challenged his twitter followers to submit the YouTube clip that best represented U.S. Grand Strategy. All are worthwhile and illustrative of current or recent American grand strategy and its results. Of particular note is a late entry by  Diana Wueger, ”Like a BUS!,” which portrays beautifully the benefits and dangers of hegemonic power.

According to Daniel:

Like most of these seemingly short clips, Wueger’s submission works on two levels.  On the one hand, it demonstrates the ways in which hegemonic power allows some actors to be able to pursue policies that small actors simply cannot.  In this comparison, this clip reminds the viewer of the many global public goods that a hegemonic actor might feel obligated to provide.  Compare Bus 62 with the U.S. Navy after the 2004 tsunami, for example.  On the other hand, hegemonic power can also have unanticipated negative externalities.  Sure, Bus 62 simply plows through the barrier.  However, it does so without helping the other people stuck in traffic, and, like a boss, nearly plows over the person in the way.  A cautionary tale about the uses and possible abuses of power.

Jun 012012
 

Peter Feaver noted in a recent Foreign Policy blog post, Competing perspectives on American grand strategy, that a recent report by the Center for New American Security (CNAS) on the future of American grand strategy displayed a remarkable amount of agreement between competing perspectives. In his words:

Dick Betts calls for the greatest amount of change from the status quo grand strategy, but I wonder if that isn’t because he pegs the status quo to somewhere around January 2003, at the high-water mark of what he would consider to be wrong-headed American military interventionist impulses. I call for the least amount of change to the status quo strategy, but that is because I consider the second-term Bush grand strategy, which Obama has largely tried to implement (whilst rhetorically repudiating), to be a reasonable exemplar of a post-Cold War approach that has been more successful than not. Bob Art has his own take, which I consider to be fairly compatible with what I call the “legacy grand strategy.” And Anne-Marie Slaughter emphasizes the prevalence of networks, which, she argues, requires a fundamental rethink of grand strategy. I think she is right about the importance of networks, and I am all for a rethink of grand strategy. After doing that rethink, I end up more comfortable with the strategy that has hitherto guided us than she is, but I think the differences are a matter of nuance.

May 272012
 

Robotics is the future of warfare. While it is difficult to predict the exact nature  or shape of the future in any field, especially one as new as robotics, it is a relatively safe bet that the robotically augmented soldiers will be appearing on the battlefield soon.

It seems, in fact that this is just around the corner, as reported by Danger Room’s David Axe. He reports that Lockheed Martin’s HULC, a robotic exoskeleton, will be field tested in Afghanistan in the next year. And while the US presence will be significantly diminished by the time the unit could make any significant appearance on the battle field, Axe points out that Special Operations personnel will be staying longer. With the more limited man-power and logistical support, such systems may be able to literally lessen the load on these front-line soldiers.

However, these exoskeletons may be extraordinarily useful in garrison, as well. As can be seen in this video about Sarkos’s similar, but more powerful and less mobile version, exoskeletons may be of great use in the various heavy-lifting jobs often encountered on military bases both at home and abroad.

So the future of warfare will not just bring ever more autonomous drones, in all of their new and innovative forms, but also the closer integration of man and machine.